Mobile Phones in the USA

Here comes the obvious sequel to my stories about mobile phones in Korea.

Well, we came to California and as I suspected earlier, things did not improve. From my business trips to the US over the past couple of years, I had learned that my European iPhone would normally roam in one of two networks: “Searching…” and “No Service”. Occasionally it might find AT&T or T-Mobile, but the first two seemed to have by far the best coverage in urban areas; I haven’t been outside of bigger cities, so I don’t know how well they cover rural areas. I have to say I was somewhat surprised that neither “Searching…” nor “No Service” has any shops, nor even a website where you could order SIM cards for your phone, so I was stuck with choosing between AT&T and T-Mobile. (There is also Sprint and Verizon, but their networks are CDMA based and our European phones don’t work there.)

Actually, this is not even a choice since when I walked into an AT&T shop, they flat out told me that they don’t support data on my iPhone and the guy actually recommended I go to T-Mobile. (Turns out this is not strictly speaking correct, but if these instructions are correct on how to get a European iPhone to get data on AT&T, then for all practical purposes you have only T-Mobile as your choice.)

Contrary to what you might read on the Internet, you can actually get 3G speeds on T-Mobile, but this is pre-conditioned on you actually finding a spot where they have a 3G base station. How on Earth is it possible that in 2013 a supposedly large operator in a supposedly one of the ten largest US metropolitan areas does not have full 3G coverage? Wait, it gets better! There are areas, such as our home, where even any kind of coverage is iffy, i.e., my phone does not get reception and I cannot call, send text messages, or use data? It simply boggles the mind. I’ve used a mobile phone since 1996 and have never, ever, ever had coverage this bad. No self-respecting operator in Europe would dare to attempt to sell this kind of service. (Then again, when you take a bull to a cow, it’s also called “service”…)

This is the part where Americans usually retort with a “but you Europeans don’t have any idea of just how big the US is”. Spare me, please. It is true that the distance from London to Athens is only a bit longer than New York to Miami, or that Helsinki and Lisbon are a fair bit closer to each other than New York and San Francisco, and the claim is that it is not economically feasible to cover all the points in-between with perfect coverage. That may indeed be so, but would not a large metropolitan area with well over 5 million inhabitants be something you could cover? In other words, you might not get all the points between London and Athens, but you could manage, somehow, possibly, maybe, London and Athens? Looks like it’s too difficult…

Oh, and I forgot about the price. 50 USD per month per phone, although it includes an unlimited amount of calling and texting and an unlimited amount of data, however you only get a small amount of data at 3G speeds (100 MB/month), the rest drops to EDGE, but the amount is unlimited or so they said; then again, even going 24/7 at EDGE speeds is not going to be much data, so they might actually mean “unlimited” when they say “unlimited” (I didn’t check for fine print, I admit). Yes, there are a bit cheaper deals available, but we were after instant gratification as opposed to waiting an undetermined amount of time for a SIM card to arrive in mail, so looks like we’re stuck with this. For my needs (a few calls and some data) the price is outrageous, but similar pre-paid plans in Finland or Europe would probably cost the same or more, so my complaint here is more about the perceived need to offer “unlimited minutes”.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the main part of the problem is “European” iPhone since US mobile phone networks were traditionally based on CDMA as opposed to GSM which was used in pretty much all of the rest of the world (with a few exceptions, like Korea :)). If the coverage maps I see on the net are anything to go by, then any other network except T-Mobile would be significantly better in this area, but if you can’t get a data connection on your smartphone, it sort of becomes useless. Yes, for the record, I’ve checked what kind of 3G speeds I get and I can get the usual 4-5 Mbps downloads if I happen to be covered by a 3G base station, so all the problems really relate to poor coverage and not problems in technology on my side.

However, in order to be honest, they also allow tethering and gave me an extra 400 MB at 3G speed on top of my usual 100 MB/month, so things could be a lot worse (except the coverage, of course…)

Only 131 days (plus change) to go until my return to civilization. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that since I commute with public transport and use my iPhone as a navigation device in rental cars, it would be nice if it worked better. But more on those later.


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